Productivity Culture Has an Empathy Problem
A few months ago, the day before I was supposed to interview a productivity expert for a story, I realized he had never confirmed the time. I fired off an email and then spent a couple stressful hours waiting for him to reply, scrambling to move around my calendar and reschedule other interviews so I could stay flexible for this one.
The next day, minutes before our interview, he finally emailed me back, telling me he could do it now, if I had time. I scrambled to move things around to accommodate him.
After we hung up, I remembered a piece of advice I’d read in this expert’s book: If you want to get stuff done, you have to stop bothering yourself with mundane tasks, like constantly checking email — or, apparently, giving a writer the courtesy of confirming an interview.
It seemed like reasonable advice when I read it. But now, on the receiving end of it, I was less on board. Because my interviewee hadn’t taken a minute to confirm a time, my own productivity suffered.
It also occurred to me, however, that I have done the exact same thing to other people. I always feel a little guilty when someone emails me to “circle back” about something I should have responded to already. Sure, I’m busy, but so are they. So is just about everyone.
We all have conflicting priorities, and we’re probably all guilty of prioritizing our own productivity at the expense of someone else’s. If you didn’t, you’d never finish anything. As the author Greg McKeown argues in his book Essentialism, by making more time for what’s “essential” in your life, you’re necessarily going to disappoint other people.
The advice is valid. But productivity culture is so fixated on the self — on your own focus, your own output, your own goals — that it rarely acknowledges how to navigate those efforts within any sort of community.
It assumes that we all live in a world where every task is easily delegatable. It glosses over the fact that most of the time, someone else is paying the price for your productivity — and that the people who do tend to be the most marginalized.